Sam McManis

Discoveries: In western Sonoma County, ferment in the finest cedar chips

Ornamental cherry and bonsai fir trees are among the coordinated plantings in the Japanese garden at Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary in Freestone.
Ornamental cherry and bonsai fir trees are among the coordinated plantings in the Japanese garden at Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary in Freestone. Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary

Thin curls of steam rose from the tub of mulch, hovered for a moment in an ethereal mist before dissipating, yet leaving a lingering aroma. Fecund and yeasty – thankfully more redolent of a fragrant national park than an astringent taxicab air freshener – this biochemical bouillabaisse of finely milled cedar, Douglas fir, rice bran and 60 plant enzymes imported from Japan awaited my immersion.

Was I really planning to go through with this, doff my yukata robe and burrow into this vat of silage, this glorified compost heap?

You bet.

I mean, how often does a guy get to take part, intimately, in nature’s fermentation process, experience its metabolic alchemy as it’s happening rather than merely enjoying its result by quaffing craft beer and noshing cheese on sourdough?

Besides, I was paying $99 for Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary’s 20-minute session in the Cedar Enzyme Bath, found nowhere else in North America and considered the epitome of alternative, organic, medicinal treatments in an area, western Sonoma County, renowned for such things. So, yeah, there was no turning back.

At the pre-bath tea ceremony – an elixir of peppermint, yarrow, red clover, nettle and untold other beneficial herbs is served – my spa sherpa Ariel Calistro quelled my anxiety, which had been ratcheted up exponentially after filling out a three-page medical release form, by explaining the procedure and its therapeutic effects. Millions in Japan partake, apparently, to help them with everything from arthritis to lymphatic conditions, to purge one’s corpus of toxins and infuse it with cedar-derived oils that baste one’s short-circuited limbic system.

Or something like that. Yes, you sticklers, few peer-reviewed, double-blind, longitudinal, cohort academic studies have definitively proved the efficacy of cedar enzyme baths, but Osmosis’ 30 years (300,000 served) in business attests to its popularity. A full explanation of the process and the molecular reactions, courtesy of owner Michael Stusser, would come later, post-steeping.

What I really needed from Calistro, at that moment, was reassurance. I’m no spa rookie, but I was coming off a rather unsettling bout of claustrophobia during my last health adventure, a mud bath in Calistoga, a freak-out episode the attendants no doubt recall with hearty chortles. But Calistro poured me another cup of herbal tea and spoke soothingly.

“I’ve heard some negatives about the mud baths, that they are really too hot, stinky and heavy, and people feel like they’re stuck,” she said. “There’s no actual liquid in our baths. We do add water to our material, but the material absorbs the water, and the heat is a byproduct of that fermentation. I’d say the heat is similar to a steam room. I’ve never had anyone faint on me. You can always, you know, get out early.”

She left me in the tea ceremony room to mull and sip, while she prepared the bath. Placated, somewhat, I relaxed and took in the ornamental cherry and bonsai fir trees in the Zen garden.

Then she came for me. The closer we got to the door to the Cedar Enzyme Bath house, the more aromatic the air became. It reached full pungency – akin to being deep in a moist, fog-shrouded forest just after a rainfall, only more so – when you stepped in. But, by that time, other senses had taken over. I eyed the steaming pile of mulch warily, but dutifully doffed the yukata and climbed the tub steps. I didn’t lie so much as plopped down on the bed of russet-hued shavings, so finely ground that it could be bottled and put on a spice rack.

The mixture felt less pulpy than expected. Not exactly smooth on the skin, but not grainy, either, and there certainly was no chance of getting splinters in sensitive areas. I didn’t sink into the sediment, á la the mud-bath debacle, so much as hover, suspended in the stuff, like a pear wedge resting on a bed of lettuce. Calistro eschewed the rake and used her hands to spread swathes of mulch from toe to neck.

Only after she had me engulfed to just south of my Adam’s apple did I notice the heat, far from oppressive but significant, and the curling wisps of steam emanating from below. I was, essentially, immobilized, my limbs encased but my digits still able to fidget, a nervous habit of mine.

When I mentioned the overpowering aroma of eau de Yosemite, Calistro’s eyes widened.

“I know!” she exclaimed. “When it’s fresh, like, brand new, it smells really good. You can smell it all the way in the lobby. The longer it stays in the tub, the less fragrant it becomes. But it also gets hotter. We change (the cedar) out every two weeks.”

My batch, apparently, had been lying in state for just over a week, losing aroma but gaining heat. I tried to relax, as Calistro gently instructed, but I couldn’t help but wonder about the buck-naked tub-goers who had preceded me, those adherents whose cleansing sweat had commingled (and, I feared, festered) with all of those plant enzymes. I calmed myself by thinking that, well, there probably were far more bacteria, fungi and bodily secretions on my hotel room bedspread than in here.

Calistro patted me down a final time, as if she had buried someone in sand on the beach, and gave me the once-over.

“Would you like more or less material anywhere?”

“No,” I replied, jauntily, “I think you’ve got me covered.”

When she didn’t laugh at the pun, I added, “So to speak.”

Still no reaction. Cedar Enzyme Baths are no time for levity, apparently.

“I’ll be back to check on you in a few minutes.”

With the requisite spa music playing, heavy on tinkling piano, muted strings and pan flute, I settled in. My brow beaded, but there was none of the flop sweat I experienced in the mud-bath-from-Hades. Though supine and staring at a wood-beamed ceiling perhaps made from the same kind of trees I was soaking in, I still could crane my neck and look at the rain beating down on the partially fogged-up window out to the Meditation Garden.

It was, in a word, soothing. More than that, the texture of the pulp friction on my body was sublime. At once rough and silky. And steamy. Really, really steamy. I closed my eyes and felt those life-giving enzymes seeping and absorbing, cell by cell, into me.

The door opened. Movement behind me. Then a cool, wet cloth daubed my unfurrowed brow, my cheekbones, my upper lip and chin. I hadn’t been aware how much I’d been sweating until the sweat excreted in a wave after the water evaporated. Calistro offered sips of water – stainless steel straw, a nice touch – but I, in a fit of misplaced machismo, waved it off. Well, not waved, since my arms were out of service, but shook my head.

At the halfway point of treatment, she returned. This time, she rang out the damp cloth and drizzled cool water over my head. I was so heated by that point that I was surprised my scalp didn’t sizzle. This time, I accepted the water. She asked if I needed any adjustments, then slipped out once more.

I nearly fell asleep after that – and I am not a midday napper. That’s a testament to the bath’s Xanax-like effect.

Getting out of the tub, once the pan flutes went silent and my 20 minutes were up, was a trip in itself. I hoisted up my arms and legs, not unlike the world’s most awkward butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, and looked with astonishment at my limbs and torso.

I had been breaded, like a veal cutlet!

A scrim of rutilent grit adorned every inch of me. Calistro was kind enough to take a whisk broom and wipe off my back, leaving the rest to me. Fortunately, the shower head was the detachable kind, good for those hard-to-reach places. During the 30-minute decompression session on the “sound therapy” table, my mind pinged with questions about the Cedar Enzyme Bath, queries not silenced by more pan-flute music.

All would be revealed, in due time, when I would chat up Stusser.

An organic gardener and farmer by training – he helped start the organic farming course of study at UC Santa Cruz – Stusser said he “discovered” Cedar Enzyme Bath therapy on a trip to Japan more than 30 years ago. It helped ease his severe sciatica when “other healing modalities” had failed even to make a dent.

“It was a huge physiological change that relieved me from severe pain,” he said. “But it was also a life-changing, if you will, spiritual experience.”

When I asked about specific therapeutic benefits, he prefaced by saying: “I’m not a medical professional, but … first and foremost, it’s relaxing. ‘Relax’ is a pretty simple word with a simple meaning, yet to really relax is not so easy, given what’s going on in our culture right now.”

As for specifics of the therapy?

“You get that profound level of relief because heat is generated biologically,” he said. “It’s warming up through this fundamental impulse in biology called fermentation. Fermentation is the mother of all enzymatic activity.

“What is known in science is that enzymes are the catalytic force in all change in living tissue. They are mostly known to help digestion, but they conduct a whole symphony of functions from the exchange of oxygen from the lining of the lungs into the bloodstream and the whole movement of energy through your nervous system.

“When you get immersed in a fermenting medium, there’s a huge symbiotic effect of so many biological activities within the body. … There’s also the benefit of heat therapy and aroma therapy, as well. Also, the (cedar mixture) releases fundamental oils used by aboriginal cultures for thousands of years for purification rites. This is like a full-body compress of an essential-oil treatment.”

He was getting too science-y for my cedar-addled brain, so I asked where Osmosis gets its pulp.

“Oregon. The most fragrant cedar in the world,” he said. “From a special mill. This is a type of cedar that only grows in one small area of Oregon (Port Orford). We had to look high and low to find it. It’s almost identical to the type of wood they use in Japan called Hinoki. We have a warehouse, and we get shipments once a quarter. We have an industrial facility where we re-grind all the wood fibers down to a softer texture and use an industrial food mixer to blend the material together.”

Stusser said the “biological catalyst” enzyme to propel the fermentation of the mixture – akin to the “starter” culture for sourdough bread – comes from Japan. (Digression for a local shout-out: Calistro, a Fair Oaks native, said the rice bran in the mixture is Sacramento-grown.)

Stusser would like to say that people flock to Freestone primarily for the Cedar Enzyme Bath, but he admitted the essentially one-street town sort of specializes in a certain biologic process. There’s the wildly popular Wild Flour Bread Bakery, Freestone Artisan Cheese and Joseph Phelps Vineyards.

“We’re actually a kind of a fermentation village,” Stusser said. “We’ve got the wine, bread, cheese and the Cedar Enzyme (Bath). You could call Freestone the fermentation destination.”



1. Freestone Artisan Cheese: 380 Bohemian Highway;

2. Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary: 209 Bohemian Highway;

3. Wild Flour Bread Bakery: 140 Bohemian Highway;

4. Enduring Comforts (Antiques): 142 Bohemian Highway;

5. Joseph Phelps Vineyards: 12747 El Camino Bodega;